Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Slow Spring

Signs of spring are painfully slow this year. Yesterday was cold and gray. Without sunglasses I squint my eyes against the snow's glare, even on gray days. I tried to look at a shrub in our front yard and was turned back by two feet of soft snow that stubbornly remains.

The bright spot yesterday were the 7 male and 5 female purple finches at the feeders. The males -- the color of red raspberry juice -- sit at the black oil sunflower seed feeder methodically extracting the seeds. The less colorful brown and white females have distinct brown streaks below and broad white streaks on their face.

We've never had so many purple finches. Breeding bird surveys in New Hampshire show a steady population decline from 1966 to the present. Various theories for this decline include competition from the non-native house finch, loss of some of their breeding habitat (specifically spruce-fir forests and associated insect populations), and climate change. None of these reasons are for certain.

Purple finches tend to return to the same breeding areas year after year. In winter, however, they range widely in response to fluctuations in their food supplies -- seeds, buds, fruits. Given the "irruptions" of redpolls this year - we had 4 dozen a few weeks ago and my friend Scott reported more than 500 in his yard on Saturday -- perhaps the purple finches are responding to the same winter conditions that cause redpolls to be on the move. Interestingly, I have not seen a house finch in several years. A few pairs used to nest in our neighborhood, but not for some time. Perhaps house finches are in decline and purple finches are rebounding. Only more data will tell.

The purple finches at the feeder is a winter flock, adding to the feeling that it is still winter. I saw one yellow crocus yesterday, at New Roots Farm. Spring is taking its own sweet time.

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